As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, we regularly pay community representatives small per diems to turn up to meetings about the project. This is not just for meetings for which they may need to leave the comfort of their homes and travel to, but also for meetings actually in the villages where they live. In common with other organisations and projects we were initially extremely reluctant to pay these allowances – one shouldn’t have to pay people to participate in projects which are designed to help them – but fairly early on we concluded our progress would be greatly facilitated if we did, since otherwise we were faced with the first hour of every meeting being taken up by a renewed discussion as to why we were not paying per diems. Also other organisations and projects operating in the same area were paying per diems*, and we rather suffered by comparison (especially if there were multiple events happening at the same time).
Quite apart from the practical considerations, there are various ways to view this situation:
1. Our beneficiaries are busy farmers who would otherwise be working out in their fields, and/or
2. They are skeptical about the as yet unrealised benefits of our project, and are reluctant to give up their time for something that might not work, and/or
3. They are greedy ingrates who know if they don’t cooperate our project will fail, so we’d better pay up.
I think there is some truth in all three views. Certainly if we hadn’t paid up it is debatable whether we would have achieved the things we have. The communities also can, and do point out that our staff (and the staff from our local government partners) are paid per diems for their work, per diems which are 5-10 times what we pay community representatives. From time to time, a particularly pushy individual or group may even press us to increase the rate of payment. Going by local rates of pay in the villages, we are more than adequately compensating people for their time, and such requests do rather come across as naked greed. On the other hand, such payments make up a pretty small fraction of our total outgoings; for the most part we can afford such increases.
The real difficulty will come when we try to wean the communities off such payments, which is the argument most often deployed against making any kind of payments in the first place. The good thing is that at least some of the community representatives we work with recognise and are already looking forward to the time when they are making enough money for them to cover their own allowances.
Per diem culture is deeply engrained here and, despite the regular laments, is unlikely to go away any time soon. In many ways it is only fair that community members should get in on the act, especially when we bring them our project (rather than the other way round). It doesn’t automatically fatally undermine project sustainability; communities can recognise when the good times have ceased, and still continue with something they think is worthwhile, but it can make it rather difficult to evaluate the motivations of project beneficiaries during a project’s lifetime. It also torpedoes any romantic notions the wet-behind-the-ears development worker may have that the beneficiaries they so want to help, actually want to be helped badly enough that they’ll do so without needing to be paid for it.
However, it is not necessarily at odds with recent development thinking. Cash incentives (known as Conditional Cash Transfers) such as those developed by Brazil for sensible decision making by households (e.g. to send your children to school, or getting them immunized) are proving quite effective (if not quite the panacea that some think) and are rapidly gaining in popularity. Thus whilst left-leaning development theorists decry any development projects that have not been requested, and preferably designed, by the intended beneficiaries, pragmatists are getting results by combining their paternalist insights with hard cash incentives. Maybe Western government should consider paying their overweight citizens to go to the gym?
* Many organisations and projects deny that they pay any kind of allowances, but round here they all do it, under one guise (e.g. ‘refreshments’) or another.